22.07.2015 by Marian Trudgill
What to Watch on your Sofa: Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 BBC adaptation)
This is it: the big one. So big in fact that our culture editor Andrew didn’t feel worthy of covering it, so he invited writer and Austen expert Marian Trudgill to explain why the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice – now 20 years old if you can believe it - is the ultimate entry to our What to Watch on Your Sofa series…
Initially given the title First Impressions by Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice was published by Thomas Egerton in January 1813, and received a more than favourable reception in its day. Austen herself referred to it as ‘my own darling child’ and it went on to become one of the most popular novels in English literature.
I first fell in love with Pride and Prejudice while studying it in the school sixth form. Austen’s incisive social satire, played out via the wit and warmth of her expertly crafted heroine Elizabeth Bennet, had an instant appeal.
Then along came 1995, and the BBC version hit our screens in the form of six delicious 55-minute episodes, and I fell in love all over again. Now at university, I eagerly sought a space alongside my fellow post-grad students on an increasingly crowded sofa... and we were joining more than 10 million others across the country as we settled down for our weekly Sunday evening treat.
The very first episode exceeded my expectations. Expertly adapted by a production team consisting of scriptwriter Andrew Davies, producer Sue Birtwhistle and director Simon Langton, the new series propelled the relatively unknown faces of Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, as the brooding Fitzwilliam Darcy and the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet respectively, to instant fame.
A perfect combination
So, what was it that made the BBC series such a success?
As all true fans of Pride and Prejudice know: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”. Jane Austen’s original novel satirises the social mores of the landed gentry in Regency Britain. For the upper middle and aristocratic classes, marriage to a man with a steady income was one of very few life options available to women, a fact that is made abundantly clear in the book’s well-known opening line above, which is given to Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC series.
However, the BBC series did more than simply portray the social issues of the time – it managed to generate a universal appeal for a modern day audience.
First, in its superb casting. The dark and smouldering Mr Darcy. The witty and vivacious Lizzie. Benjamin Whitrow and Alison Steadman perfectly cast as the perfectly mismatched Mr and Mrs Bennet...
And from Adrian Lukis’ dastardly but charming George Wickham to David Bamber’s disgustingly simpering and superficial Mr Collins, the BBC series encapsulated and amplified the core qualities of Jane Austen’s original characters.
Then there was the production. In making the series, the team wanted to create a ‘fresh, lively piece’ while maintaining the spirit of the novel. They achieved it by sticking closely to the storyline and keeping much of the original dialogue, but lavishing on top of it sumptuous layers of memorable music, period costumes, authentic choreography and dreamy cinematography. It made for a winning combination: BAFTA and Emmy-winning, in fact.
But though they stuck closely to the book, the Beeb also introduced some pertinent additions, emphasising Austen’s motifs while providing us with a visual feast. Take, for example, the new scenes in which we see the young Bennet girls parading themselves in front of a stream of eligible (if morally undesirable) bachelors. Or the undeniably romantic moment when Lizzie rescues young Georgiana from the cutting remarks of Mr Bingley’s evil sister and Darcy sends her a smouldering look of gratitude, with the image of his love-smitten face being freeze framed for just a moment, in order to amplify the dramatic intensity.
With such touches the BBC series allows us to explore the character of Mr Darcy in more depth than the novel. We see him trying to to master his passionate feelings for Elizabeth through pure bodily exertion, such as the fencing scene, which gives physical expression to his emotional turmoil as he proclaims: ‘I shall conquer this. I shall!’
A nation swoons
Which brings us rather neatly – and somewhat inevitably – to the side of a certain lake. We really can’t go any further without mentioning that scene. You know the one. Dubbed by The Guardian as ‘one of the most unforgettable moments in British TV history’ – in which a sodden Colin Firth emerges from his swim in the lake, complete with clinging white shirt and breeches, to be met by a startled and slightly breathless Elizabeth, and both are then lost in a series of mutually embarrassed bumbling enquiries about the health of various members of Elizabeth’s family.
So here it is, in the interest of completeness.
However, notwithstanding the cult status that was later afforded to the lakeside encounter, the BBC series was not just attractive to the ladies.
While the male members of my family are not known for being avid watchers of period drama (in the words of Lizzie, ‘quite the opposite’), even they appreciated its humour and sophistication, and chortled along to Mr Bennet’s wise observations on the state of the nation, and his wife’s latest match-making schemes. One even proclaimed Pride and Prejudice to be ‘the finest BBC series ever made’, a sentiment with which I am inclined to agree, even twenty years on. It is, quite simply, a national treasure.
There have indeed been numerous P&P adaptations, versions and sequels, from the older and comparatively stuffy BBC studio affairs, to the more recent film adaptation starring Kiera Knightly and Matthew MacFadyen - which despite being more dizzy and at times more overly dramatic than the TV series, rather lacked the depth, subtlety and finesse achieved by the Beeb.
Or take the even more recent three-part drama Death Comes to Pemberley. That featured more of the sex but had none of the sparkle. Sadly the lack of electricity and verbal sparring between the two main characters means that they lose much of their appeal.
You see, the secret is the implied sexiness. Subtlety rules, in true Austenian fashion. Less is more. A damp white shirt is racier than no shirt at all. Hence the kiss between the newlywed Mr and Mrs Darcy at the end of the final BBC episode means far more than the sight of Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin getting active in the marital bed while otherwise appearing to not want to talk to one another.
Besides, we don’t need to see, when we can dream…
Top Five Quotes from the BBC's Pride and Prejudice
5) “Shelves in the closet! A happy thought indeed” - Lizzie, endeavouring to respond to Mr Collins’ enraptured unveiling of his refitted wardrobe – inspired, of course, by the indomitable Lady Catherine de Bourgh
4) “May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?” - Mr Bennet, mischievously inquiring after the origin of Mr Collins’ treasury of female flattery
3) “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” - Mr Bennet in classic form
2) “A whole campful of soldiers!” – Lydia Bennet’s wistful (and as usual, deeply inappropriate) exclamation following Lizzie’s criticism of her indiscreet relationship with the local militia
1) “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” – Mr Darcy, proclaiming his love to an astonished Elizabeth